“It’s deja vu all over again.” – Yogi Berra
In an eerily similar fashion to last season, the Syracuse men’s basketball team suffered the loss of a valued team member.
Last season, sophomore center Fab Melo ran afoul of academic eligibility requirements and missed three games during the regular season. The Orange were the No. 1 team in the nation, but a trip to Notre Dame without Melo sent Syracuse home with its first loss of the season. Melo would return, but would again be left off the team’s roster going into the NCAA tournament, dashing the school’s hopes of a national title.
Syracuse would lose in the Elite Eight as it was overmatched inside against Ohio State.
A few hours before the game against Villanova last Saturday, the university announced senior sharp-shooter James Southerland was suspended indefinitely for unspecified academic issues.
“I still think we can reach our full potential. It’s a huge blow to our team. We just have to find another way to make up for the points he would usually score, and I think we are on the right track.” – C.J. Fair
No. 6 Syracuse (16-1, 4-0 Big East) has No. 1 Louisville (16-1, 4-0) next up on Saturday, Jan. 19, at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, KY. This gives the Orange a week to prepare for a top-ranked Cardinals team that has had its way with Syracuse until last season.
Prior to being swept in both meetings last year, the Cardinals won seven straight meetings against the Orange. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim and his former assistant, Louisville coach Rick Pitino, will be meeting for the first time in Syracuse’s final season in the Big East. Both schools will leave the Big East for the ACC, Syracuse in 2013 and Louisville in 2014.
The coaches have shared a storied rivalry, with none bigger than Pitino’s Kentucky Wildcats overmatching Boeheim’s John Wallace-led Orangemen in the 1996 NCAA Championship game.
Knocking the Cardinals off of their top-ranked perch would be a nice, albeit small, bit of payback for Boeheim, but in order to do so, he must figure out how to play without Southerland.
Southerland, who came off the bench as the sixth man, was a bench player in name only. He was been a decent rebounder and is second on the team in scoring. He’s also the Orange’s biggest three-point threat.
Jim Boeheim gave a glimpse of what life will look like without Southerland against Villanova by going only eight players deep and relying on freshman Jerami Grant and sophomore Trevor Cooney to pick up the slack.
Grant’s 13 points were a career high and his five rebounds tied for the team lead. Cooney knocked down a pair of three pointers, which accounted for half of the Orange’s three-point production. This is key in that Southerland, while being the best long-distance shooter on the roster, is a streak shooter.
Syracuse has played 11 games since Southerland tied Gerry McNamara and Andy Rautins for the most three pointers in a game in Orange history, with nine against Arkansas. In those 11 games, Southerland has made more than one three-point shot in a game just three times. In four games, he made zero attempts, going a combined 0-of-13. In four of his last five games, he made only one of his attempts in each game, going 4-of-20.
What this means is that Southerland’s shooting has been more of a luxury than a necessity. Different players have stepped up behind the arc at different moments of the season, most notably Brandon Triche and Cooney, but the fact is that this is not a three-point shooting team. But this could be a good thing.
Bringing the ball inside and using the one of the biggest strengths of Syracuse, its immense size, could end up doing wonders for an offense that is already very proficient. Fair and Triche can create their own shots fairly easily, but sometimes Michael Carter-Williams struggles when an outlet pass is not available.
Which team will win on Saturday?
Bringing the ball in would take advantage of Grant’s mid-range shooting ability and would also free up Cooney as the outlet. Cooney, who is also a streak shooter, can sometimes have difficulty creating his own shot, so having a more active inside game could help Cooney greatly.
However long Southerland is out, this will be a great opportunity for Jim Boeheim to measure his bench. It will also force Syracuse to keep freshman DaJuan Coleman in games for much longer. Coleman hasn’t blossomed as quickly as Orange fans had hoped, but the added minutes could boost his confidence and give him the opportunity to shine without the fear of Boeheim’s quick hook.
Defensively, not much should change. Grant and Cooney are athletic defenders and have a good understanding of Syracuse’s zone.
James Southerland will be missed, but the impact could be negligible. The bench can make up for his absence and the added playing time may be the shot in the arm the Orange have been looking for since the loss to Temple.
When and if Syracuse gets Southerland back is a mystery, but Jim Boeheim has a wonderful opportunity to see his understudies in real-game action, or as Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by watching.”